Health risks of outdoor work in areas impacted by bushfire smoke

Advice for doing outdoor work on days of poor air quality due to bushfire smoke. This information is not for first responders and relief and recovery personnel, such as firefighters, who may be exposed to other airborne hazards.

Date last updated

Wednesday 15 Jan 2020

Industries and topics
  • Bushfires

Hazards from bushfire smoke

Bushfire smoke is a mixture of airborne particles, gases and water vapour and can affect the health of anyone who is exposed to it. Young children, the elderly, people with heart or lung conditions and pregnant women can be sensitive to smoke exposure.

EPA Victoria monitors air quality across Victoria, including monitoring for carbon monoxide and other particulate matter. To determine the air quality rating in a particular area within Victoria, refer to the EPA AirWatch website (link below).

If you do not have access to EPA AirWatch, or the EPA monitor is not operational for your location, the amount of smoke in the air can be assessed by the visibility of nearby landmarks (see visibility information for each level of air quality rating below).

Health risks

Exposure to airborne particles in smoke may cause coughing, shortness of breath and respiratory irritation, as some particles are small enough to get into the throat and lungs. Conditions such as asthma, heart or lung conditions may be worsened by exposure.

Workplaces should review their first aid arrangements to determine if a suitable response is available for employees impacted by bushfire smoke.

Employees who are sensitive to bushfire smoke should initiate their personal treatment plan, which may include reviewing it with a medical practitioner.

If employees are worried about their symptoms, they should see their doctor or call Nurse on Call on 1300 606 024. Anyone experiencing wheezing, chest tightness or difficulty breathing should seek urgent medical attention.

Respiratory protective equipment is the lowest level of risk control

Employers have a duty to provide and maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, a workplace that is safe and without risks to health.

The most effective way to control the risk of exposure to smoke is to avoid outdoor work on days where the air quality rating is poor, very poor or hazardous.

Ordinary paper dust masks, handkerchiefs or bandannas should not be used. They do not filter out fine particles from bushfire smoke and therefore do not provide protection against health risks.

When they are worn in accordance with the manufacturers' instructions, P2 (N95) face masks will filter out fine particulate matter. P2 masks can be very hot and uncomfortable and can make it harder for you to breathe normally. If the mask is not fitted properly or becomes loaded up with particles from extended use, it will be even less effective.

The mask needs to fit the wearer securely to achieve an air-tight seal and this will depend on facial size and shape. Facial hair will prevent an air-tight seal being achieved.

For employees with facial hair, the employer should review work requirement to determine if working outdoors is necessary. Where outdoor work cannot be avoided, arrangements should be made to minimise the time spent outdoors. 

Air quality and recommendations

The information below provides guidance on what level of physical activity is safe to do in different levels of air quality, and recommended respiratory protective equipment. Employers should undertake an assessment of their specific work activities to determine the appropriate risk controls.

Physical activity

  • Light physical activity includes sitting with light manual work with hands or hands and arms, and driving.  Standing with some light arm work and occasional walking.
  • Moderate physical activity includes sustained moderate hand and arm work, moderate arm and leg work, moderate arm and trunk work, or light pushing and pulling. Normal walking.
  • Heavy physical activity includes intense arm and trunk work, carrying, shovelling, manual sawing, pushing and pulling heavy loads, walking at a fast pace.

Sensitive population

Sensitive population includes:

  • children younger than 14
  • people older than 65
  • people with heart and lung conditions, including asthma
  • pregnant women

Air Quality and Recommendations

References

ACGIH TLVs and BEIs 2019 – Metabolic rate categories and the representative with example activities

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